WASHINGTON — On the eve of President Barack Obama’s trip to Mexico next week, the new government there looks to reboot a joint effort to combat violent drug traffickers, worries about piecemeal efforts in the United States to legalize marijuana and hopes to rebuild frayed relations with Cuba.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade also said the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party wouldn’t mean a reversal of his country’s willingness to extradite nationals wanted in the United States.
“There is no plan to change the way that extraditions have been working,” said Meade, a Yale-educated economist who served as Mexico’s finance secretary before the change of administration in December. He spoke to McClatchy at the Mexican Embassy in Washington in advance of Obama’s trip to Mexico City on May 2.
Obama will meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto as analysts look for signs of change after the new president’s party returned to power for the first time since it was voted out in 2000 after seven decades of control.
Pena Nieto charted an immediate change from his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, by traveling first to South America after his election last year. He also immediately put some distance between Mexican and U.S. foreign policy with respect to authoritarian governments in Cuba and Venezuela.
“We are going to be involved, engaged, in terms of respectful dialogue, but willing to create conditions so that the relationship results in further development for not just Mexico, but also Cuba and Venezuela,” Meade explained.
Under the Institutional Revolutionary Party _ the PRI, in its Spanish initials _ Mexico was the only Latin American country that maintained relations without interruption with the Castro government, which launched its 1959 revolution from Mexico. Castro embarrassed former Mexican President Vicente Fox in April 2002 by recording and making public a private telephone conversation they’d had.
“We want, at this stage, to be constructively engaged with Cuba. We are just in the process of renewing our ambassador there,” Meade said.
Mexico has tapped a veteran diplomat, Juan Jose Bremer, to be posted in Havana. He’s the former ambassador to the United States, England, Germany and the former Soviet Union.
On Venezuela, the Obama administration has been reluctant to recognize Nicolas Maduro’s narrow electoral victory last week. Mexico congratulated the new Venezuelan leader Friday, just two days after Secretary of State John Kerry had refused to recognize the results and supported opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in his call for a recount.
“We were among the voices asking for the process to develop in a peaceful fashion, and to be thorough, recognizing that the electoral system in Venezuela is different,” Meade explained.
During its long rule, the PRI rarely extradited Mexican nationals who were wanted for trial in the United States, especially trafficking suspects. Calderon, however, sent hundreds of Mexicans to the United States to face trial. With the PRI returned to power, diplomats have been watching closely for how Pena Nieto acts on extraditions. He’s sent one big trafficking suspect to the United States, but unlike his predecessor he did so with little public notice.
“As you know, our policy in place allows for the Mexican government to decide basically what the right timing is . . . and in that sense we will continue to observe the ongoing treaty. It will continue to be part of our foreign policy tools,” said Meade, who was in Washington working out details ahead of Obama’s trip.
On the agenda is the Merida Initiative, a $1.6 billion plan started under President George W. Bush that involves the transfer of technology and training for Mexican law enforcement. The Pena Nieto administration wants to reboot the plan, in hopes of reducing violence across Mexico by more involvement with state-level officials, who often have been the source of corruption in the war on drugs.
“It will have to be adjusted on many levels, not just because there has been a change of administration, but also because we are at a different stage of the institutional strengthening of Mexico,” the foreign secretary said. He added that the Merida plan “has enough flexibility in it so we can accommodate” new realities.
Tied to the drug war is a mixed message from the United States, where several states have decriminalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so. Mexico, Meade said, hopes for more discussion between neighbors.
“The president has said he does not believe in legalization in the case of Mexico. He has said that repeatedly,” the foreign secretary said. “But he has also identified the need for a multilateral dialogue on the best way to address what is a regional phenomenon and a regional problem.”
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